RapidChat: Jonathan & Johannah Jelks

For this week's RapidChat, Rapid Growth sits down with a change-making duo who share a passion for community activism and a last name. Jonathan and Johannah Jelks are siblings and allies in a quest to create a culturally competent community. Self-proclaimed yin and yang, their personalities are as different as their approach. They're lifelong Grand Rapidians, working to reinvent the city and eager to share their fresh and candid perspectives. Read on as we talk about everything from GR Soul Club to a global Grand Rapids.
For this week's RapidChat, Rapid Growth sits down with a brother-sister change-making duo who share a passion for community activism and a love for G-Rap. Jonathan and Johannah Jelks are in pursuit of a culturally competent community and are stirring up conversation and sharing their fresh and candid perspectives. Read on as we chat with these lifelong Grand Rapidians, self-proclaimed yin and yang, about everything from GR Soul Club to a global Grand Rapids.
Rapid Growth: So, Jonathan, before I met you here in person I met you on the Twittersphere. Who are some people you enjoy following?

Jonathan Jelks: Oh, Harry Belafonte. Nas, one of the greatest rappers of all time. Andy Guy, the Governor’s guy over urban initiatives… actually he was Rapid Growth’s first Managing Editor!

Johannah Jelks: I follow Eminem. I follow Pure Michigan. I even follow people who moved out of Grand Rapids and keep tabs on who’s doing what. Peter Quillin, our good friend, The Champ. Floyd Mayweather. They are our brothers.

Jon: Flowy is the best boxer in the entire world. We love those guys.

JoJo: Not our real brothers. There’s that difference in the black community.

RG: So, tell me about your work. Johannah, I know you founded Generation X & Y for MI.

JoJo: Generation X & Y for MI is a branding initiative to help support and uphold Michigan talent in neighborhoods.

I’ve just launched She Rides Her Own Way. It’s a campaign to bring self-esteem and health awareness to young minority girls and women through biking. It’s an exciting time for me right now, creatively and entrepreneurially.

I’m focused on using creative campaigns to really engage people and get them connected. I did originally start off doing community organizing and worked for a state representative in community relations. I had a lot of experience working with people and I’ve now gained more experience creating messaging and branding and that’s turned into its own thing.

Community organizing is in our lineage. Our dad was an organizer when we was a young pastor. He did a lot of neighborhood work here in Eastown. Being civically engaged was always part of our family.

RG: Your father taught at Calvin College. What did he teach?

JoJo: African American history, American studies, I’m sure he taught more than that...

Jon: Western civilization.

RG: When did he move to Grand Rapids?

JoJo: He moved with my mother in the early 80s right before Jon was born, by way of Chicago. He had a church, then was at Aquinas, then at Calvin.

RG: So you’ve spent your whole lives in Grand Rapids; nice. Jon, tell me about Empower Michigan.  

Jon: Empower Michigan is an urban initiative focused on creating a strategic agenda to facilitate conversation around revitalizing communities of color in Michigan. Empower Michigan is an informal think tank.

We started in Muskegon, a small community in dire straights. Last week we had a community forum on the state of the workforce in Michigan at GRCC.

RG: You’re both focused on getting the conversation going -- Jonathan through community forums and Johannah through creative campaigns.

Jon: We consider ourselves thought leaders. JoJo’s more of an advocate for the creative economy. She works around talent retention. We have a brain drain in Michigan. My work, we are empowering underserved, underutilized populations. Making sure they have representation and an access to opportunity. Making sure they’re connected with the future of Michigan’s workforce.

RG: Are there local organizations you admire working towards the same goals? How do you connect with these groups?

Jon: LINC is the most revolutionary organization I’ve seen in my lifetime. They’re a one-stop-shop for workforce development, community organization, getting people connected to resources, and business incubation, which is the ultimate for economic empowerment. They incubate businesses in neighborhoods where a lot of leadership, quite frankly, has given up.

I consult for LINC, GRPS, and Believe 2 Become, an education initiative. At GRPS, I focus on recruitment and retention strategies.

JoJo: As far as talent retention, I keep a pulse on The Right Place, The Chamber of Commerce, the young professional networks, neighborhood associations and business districts. Downtown Grand Rapids Inc. is in this new place trying to bring people downtown. It will be interesting to see how they use it as a pulpit to get people to invest back here.

I’m a member of GR Young Professionals and on the board for MySymphony360, a membership program that offers $15 concert tickets for young professionals ages 21-35. We’re collaborating with lots of young professional networks - GE, Spectrum Health, YNPN, St. Mary’s - all of these organizations are at the table. The goal is to expose young professionals to the music and offer networking opportunities. It’s crazy: I’m from this city but I’ve met people from all different places at these events, and it seems most people aren't indigenous that are part of these groups. These organizations are important for community building.

RG: Do you ever find opportunities to collaborate?

JoJo: Yes. When we were both working in politics, we wanted to get the word out and get young people to vote, in local and state elections, so we started an annual mixer that promotes civic engagement.

Jon: My favorite event was at Atomic Object. Senator Stabenow came and addressed the citizens of Grand Rapids, in the height of the debt crisis, in 2010, about Michigan’s future.

RG: There are many organizations working towards a better Grand Rapids and you guys, too. Do you feel optimistic when you look around?

Jon: I think Grand Rapids has a diversity problem, to be completely honest. We operate in silos here in Grand Rapids. It’s unhealthy. People of color want to be involved in organizations and design making. There is an unfortunate precedent that has been set for years. Maybe they have reached out and people haven’t been receptive. It’s something we need to address.

RG: How do we address it?

Jon: We need to have a reckoning, of sorts. We need to brainstorm. Leadership from different sectors need to come together and have conversations about being intentional, about making sure everyone is represented at the table. Anyone in leadership now needs to be thinking about what a global Grand Rapids needs to look like.

JoJo: One of the reasons we’re losing so much talent is we’re not embracing diversity and international business. We need to be a culturally competent community. We’re competing at a global level.  You can't have a vibrant city anymore without being inclusive.

My main goal is to start bridging this gap, creatively. We need to make sure the creative economy is inclusive, that everyone is playing a role. Bridging diversity with creativity.

RG: What kinds of things do you two like to do here for fun?

JoJo: I’m a nightlife person and an arts-scene person, too. Warehouse parties, shows. I like many kinds of music, hip hop particularly. We have a lot of great local hip hop artists: Rick Chyme, Adrian Butler, Lady Ace, La Famiglia, so many more.

I’m a fan of the Grand Rapids Soul Club. There’s a dynamic duo. Mike Saunders and Josh Brewer started GR Soul Club. They travel around the city and they play original vinyls of soul music. Mostly Michigan artists. The next GR Soul Club is Friday, May 23 at Pyramid Scheme ($5 tickets and info here). They sell limited edition CDs. It’s dope. You’ll have to go.

RG: See you there. What about you, Jonathan?

Jon: I like the nightlife. I like to go out and drink Champagne. They closed all the clubs down in my neck of the woods. I can’t shout any of them out. I like the art scene. I love to go to Richard App’s art gallery; it’s a hub. I like the GRAM as well. I enjoy ArtPrize, too. That’s a no-brainer. I also enjoy reading.

RG: What’s your favorite book?

Jon: The Autobiography of Malcom X.

RG: When did you read that?

Jon: In the third grade.

JoJo: That’s his favorite book. My favorite book is the Golden Compass! That tells you a lot about where we’re at, yin and yang.

Molly Crist is the RapidChat correspondent for Rapid Growth Media.
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